Jason Otto sat watching his West Holmes number-one doubles team play at sectionals with a somewhat shocked look on his face. Senior Taylor Miller and sophomore Maggie Taylor had been dubbed the second seed in the tournament and were expected to advance.
Yet there they were in their opening match of the Dover sectional tournament, facing East Liverpool’s second doubles team of sophomore Abbie Green and freshman Sydney Cooper, leading just 6-5 in the first set.
Nobody expected this kind of struggle this early from the Lady Knights’ duo.
“It’s been really, really ugly tennis so far,” Otto said of his first doubles team’s play.
Then as if the switch was turned on, West Holmes went to work, finishing off East Liverpool in the first set 7-5, then reeling off six straight games in the second set to win 7-5, 6-0.
Disaster had been diverted, and the Lady Knights twosome went on to claim a spot in the finals and advance to district play.
“We have done that a lot with the slow start, and I’m not sure what it is, but we have to fix that,” Miller said. “For whatever reason, we just really struggled to get things going, but we just continued to encourage each other and tried to move on past mistakes and focus on what we could do to win. Once we got started, we really played well.”
As the lone doubles team or individual to qualify for district play, Miller and Taylor caught fire and rolled past Cambridge 6-1, 6-0 before tackling a talented Claymont doubles team of seniors Caylan Rentsch and Lydia Cochran, the third seed in the tournament.
That was not easy, but the Lady Knights were able to churn out a 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 victory that was filled with plenty of tense moments. That win sent them to the finals, where they were defeated handily by the top-seeded Dover duo of seniors Regan Keating and Hayden Johnson, but the two had done what they set out to do in qualifying for districts.
While no other West Holmes team advanced, overall it was a very successful day for the Lady Knights. The second doubles team of senior Karley Halloran and junior Monica Nally defeated East Liverpool’s number-one doubles team 6-0, 6-1 and then took down Cambridge’s first team 6-3, 6-1 before succumbing to the champions from Dover 6-3, 6-2.
Nally, who had played at third singles all season and had huge success there, had to refocus her game to playing doubles, which can be difficult.
“They are just two entirely different styles of play, and I had to adjust my entire approach, but I really feel good about where we were and how we played,” Nally said. “Karley and I came in feeling like we could really compete for a spot at districts.”
In singles action for West Holmes, Natalie Strouse won her first game 6-3, 6-2 over Zanesville’s Ashton Hiltbrunn before falling. Senior Hailey Wade won twice, the hard way. In her first round 6-0, 6-2 win over Beaver Local’s Jordan Smith, Wade stumbled on a shot and sprained her ankle, making movement tough.
That didn’t stop her from competing, and she went out in round two and collected a well-deserved 6-2, 6-1 win over Molly Kappes of Zanesville. She fell in round three to third-seeded Katherine Host of Claymont, ending her day after a sensational effort. Taylor Brooks dropped out of the first round with a 6-1, 6-1 loss to Emili Edwards of Dover.
Meanwhile the Hiland Lady Hawks have found some tough sledding this year, not collecting a single win, but that didn’t stop them from finding success at sectionals.
In singles play both Alyssa Cooper and Lexi Yoder earned first-round wins, making for a fun day for them while accomplishing something they hope will ignite more excitement for the program, which is trying to grow from the ground up.
Yoder has been working in the offseason with Philo Cristman, a tennis coach in Canton, who has helped her take major steps. Yoder didn’t take up the game of tennis until a year ago and has become a solid player, showing off terrific footwork and a strong ground stroke.
“I am excited about the way my game has changed, and my coaches get all the credit,” Yoder said. “I used to play flat-footed all the time, and he said ‘that’s not happening.’ I wish I would have started playing a long time ago because this feels like my sport. And for us to come here at sectionals and get a couple of wins is important because I want our tennis program to grow and be successful, and when girls realize we can compete and win if we work at it is important to that success. I want other teams to recognize that we can come and compete.”
Yoder defeated Ziciah Gibson of Cambridge 6-2, 6-3 before falling to Host 6-3, 6-1, and Cooper topped Claymont’s Rylee O’Donahue 6-2, 6-2 in the second round before bowing out in a 6-2, 6-0 loss to Cambridge’s Katie Loader, the second seed who advanced to district play. Jade Mast lost in her opening match 6-0, 6-2.
In doubles play senior Emily Troyer and junior Khloe Ayers had the unenviable task of facing the fearsome duo of Keating and Johnson and fell 6-0, 6-0 while first doubles team Bella Immel and Natalie Weaver played Rentsch and Cochran tough, eventually falling 6-3, 6-3.
“We have seen this team come a long way this year,” said Hiland head coach Korie Haswell, who is in her first season at the helm for the Lady Hawks. “The way we were playing today compared to how we began this season is like night and day. These girls have put a lot of time and effort into improving their games, and it was exciting for us to see that improvement play itself out on the courts today. Even in a losing effort, Bella and Natalie really played well against a great team, and for us to pick up a couple of wins at singles was important because it does create some excitement about the future and where we want to go as a program.”